By EW Staff
August 20, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

The music of the National is dark and brooding, the kind of introverted, late-night material best enjoyed after everyone’s left the party and you’re still nursing an ill-advised last beer. The Brooklyn-based band’s Springsteen-meets-The Smiths style has resulted in two of the best rock albums of the last few years, 2005’s Alligator and this year’s Boxer, a release that has scored them MTV exposure, universal acclaim (it’s Metacritic’s second-highest rated album of 2007) and, judging by the packed-to-the-gills crowd at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport on Friday, a legion of new fans. I’ve seen the band twice over the last two years, (both times at the Troubadour — my favorite Los Angeles venue, in large part because of its small size). At neither performance did the band engage in rock theatrics or interact much with the crowd; the baritone-voiced Matt Berninger, a gawky rail of a singer, seemed content to sink into his lyrics just as his bandmates immersed themselves in murky guitar work. The songs are great enough to stand on their own, though, and I came away impressed. Or I had been, until Friday.

The group that took the stage as part of River to River Festival’sfree concert series may still call themselves the National, but it’snot the same band. Time under the spotlight has turned them from humbleto heavy: They were all confidence and noise as they launched into newsongs such as “Apartment Story” and “Brainy,” with distortion knobsturned up and Bryan Devendorf turning in lightning-quick,best-drummer-in-indie-rock performances. The Boxer songs havemetamorphosed since the album’s release in May: “Squalor Victoria,”once little more than a stopgap between the album’s beginning andmiddle sections, now concludes with a flurry of feedback and Berningerwailing “Squalor Victoria!” It was, in a word, awesome.

Though Boxer is their fourth full-length effort, the bandsmartly almost entirely stuck to songs from the last two albums. “Baby,We’ll Be Fine” and “Abel” were winners, as was the piano-driven “FakeEmpire,” on which two horn players took the stage. In between songs,Berninger gabbed with the crowd, even joking about a “secret” beerstand — what happened to the shy frontman I saw last fall? The Nationalhave become a band in every sense of the word, and nowhere was thismore evident than the set-closing “Mr. November,” a raucous fanfavorite. “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders,” Berningersang, but seeing them command a crowd under the New York skyline, it’sclear that those days aren’t over yet.

(Live-music site nyctaper recorded the performance and you can download it here.)